Postwar British history has been a fruitful furrow for scholars to plough. After books covering a range of subjects from the New Jerusalem of the welfare state to the high glamour of the New Romantics, here comes one about the Nineties, a decade ranked in the popular imagination as nice rather than naughty, a break with the me-first materialism of the previous one. Does it reinforce this image or make us re-evaluate it?
Turner is an experienced writer on post-war British life as well as its popular culture. He rightly notes that, when it comes to their defining features, decades and centuries ‘are artificial, crude concepts that seldom fit the objective facts.’ But he manages to start his survey at 1990 when John Major (whom he labels the Buddha of Suburbia) became Prime Minister and concludes it at 2001, when things apparently settled down with Tony Blair’s second election victory. He cleverly takes the concept of classlessness for his book’s title, for this was a theme propagated by both Major and Blair (but both meant by it the replacement of what could be called ‘old school tie’ leadership with one based on meritocracy; in other words, a hierarchy based on brains rather than background — but a hierarchy nevertheless).
He takes us through familiar territory such as the rise of New Labour and the events of Diana Week to the irruption of the Young British Artists and the ‘Girl Power’ antics of the Spice Girls, in doing so, he performs a valuable service by revisiting some of the period’s uncomfortable twists and turns and does so with refreshing doses of dry wit. He reminds us that the following which developed around the noir crime fiction of Derek Raymond showed that not everyone shared the decade’s supposed fluffy optimism. He points-out that in 1997, editions of sunday newspapers which had stridently criticised Diana, Princess of Wales had to undergo hasty rewrites after she’d been killed and, literally overnight, become the People’s Princess. He mentions Blair claiming that the rise of Creation Records (home to iconic bands Oasis and Primal Scream) was the work of New Labour: in fact, it was originally funded by a loan from arch-Conservative Norman Tebbitt’s Enterprise Allowance Scheme. He notes that alternative comedy, which had started out as a home for anti-conservative views, would eventually be seen during the Nineties as a career option for ambitious young people.
In politics, the picture of Major as bumbler was wrong — he was a shrewd political operator, becoming leader of the most successful political party in the history of democracy, while Gordon Brown, often presented by commentators as a clunking bully, kept his personal life distinct from the public eye, thus showing a certain decency arguably not always followed by other political figures from the period. Despite attempts by the centre-left to rebrand British values towards those held by what would eventually be described as the metropolitan elite, part of Britain yearned for old certainties, while a number of men relished the clear-cut masculinity displayed in nostalgia for the Second World War, and novels about the SAS (one wonders if that was true for some women, too).
The second half of the period is reckoned by Turner as being from 1997 — Blair’s first electoral victory — to 2001, the age of what he calls the Angels of Promise, and a good deal of the book is taken up with the rise and fall of New Labour. He is good on details of that party’s modus operandi, such as how triangulation (the avoidance of traditionally left-or¬right-wing views to give an appearance of a lack of extremism when the solution to an issue as being worked out) operated, and the party’s hubris in its early years: New Labour MP Oona King, presumably with a desire to stick it to the old Establishment, expressed ageist views about the Queen’s participation in the Millennium celebration at the Dome. He points-out New Labour’s flaws: image, rather than policy, was its defining characteristic, while some of the policies it did propagate — such as the establishment of a more meritocratic society — had been foreshadowed by some of Major’s pronouncements.
Blair’s style of government involved downgrading the role of the Cabinet and the imposing of iron discipline. But the honeymoon was soon over. Geri Halliwell, of the Spice Girls, criticised Blair for being ‘a good marketing man’ who lacked ideals. However it was, arguably, greed for power rather than girl power which would spell the end for the Blair experiment — greed for big player status on the world stage along with America (which would lead to entry into an unpopular war), and greed to be top dog (the agitation from Brown for the famous Granita restaurant alleged Labour leadership carve-up promise to be honoured so that he could succeed to the throne of Number 10).
In a comprehensive study like this, it is not easy for too much time to be spent on any one topic. But it’s difficult not to feel that Turner could have gone into some aspects of his period’s politics a little more deeply. He points out that Major and Blair extended into the social sphere the liberalism that Thatcher had initiated in economics. But he could have questioned not only how much social change she wanted (her promotion of Section 28 about the propagation of homosexuality would suggest that the answer was, not much) but also about how much change the British people wanted. He points-out that, despite successive Conservative election victories, most people supported the idea of more state expenditure on health, education and social services. He could have pondered on whether this paradox could be explained by the British being political middle-of-the-roaders —to the despair of policymakers and politicians alike — who vote against things rather than for them.
Thus, it could be argued that the Conservatives won a successive stream of elections because of the union-backed strikes and upheavals of the 1970s (triggering, among older voters, memories of British post-war austerity) while New Labour won its victories due to the unpopular effects of Conservative privatization and a general toughening of work conditions such as the end of the jobs-for-life culture. Thus, Blair’s victories could be seen as a rejection of Thatcher’s economic liberalism rather than (as what happened) a continuation of it. The rage directed against the Queen in the aftermath of Diana’s death can be seen as a continuation of hatred of even small-c conservatism stemming from the unpopularity of the Thatcher years.
Turner makes judgements on other socio-political issues that are worthy of deeper evaluation too. He points-out that party politics were not featured in the period’s working-class comedies although, in previous eras, programmes such as Love Thy Neighbour, Rising Damp and George and Mildred had done so. But he doesn’t speculate as to why this omission took place, although he gives us a clue when he covers the furore caused when the comedy show Brass Eye satirised moral panic over paedophilia.
The apparent rise of pusillanimity in public life, with an overarching fear of the ‘gaffe’, could also have been considered more deeply (although some commentators made a bracing exception to this: pseudonymous inner-city and prison doctor and Spectator columnist Theodore Dalrymple breezily declared that ‘the poverty of spirit to be found in an English slum is the worst to be found anywhere.’ Turner mentions design guru Terence Conran’s proposed omission of reference to Christianity from the Millennium Dome, and the hiving-off of religion into a special section there, as indicating that religious faith had become a sideshow, but he could have said more about the factors behind the decomposition which affected mainstream British Christianity — once a force to be reckoned-with. He refers to the faith politicians had in target culture as a way of raising standards in the public sector, but doesn’t question how or why this naive trust in targets (or, rather, in the honesty of those charged with achieving them) arose in the first place (had none of the politicians championing them bunked-off from school or skived at whatever jobs they held before ascending Westminster’s greasy pole?).
The fallout from 9/11, along with the financial crisis of 2008, would jointly give the coup-de-grace to the cosy post-war optimism upon which the pieties and prosperity of the 1990s were based. To a certain extent the consensus politics of what Turner calls Blajorism remain as the three main parties offer various forms of social democracy although some might question whether the country possesses the productivity, cohesion and efficiency upon which that form of society depends.
Due to immigration and devolution, issues of religious and national identity are to the fore, while uncomfortable questions about the hierarchy of victimhood within cultural clashes have been raised, with feminist and LGBT sensitivities seeming to come second to those of some Islamists (the issue of female genital mutilation being a case in point here). And some might say that, while Major’s ‘Back to Basics’ moral crusade was a spectacular failure, the liberalism of the Sixties is being rolled back by the introduction of gay marriage, with hedonistic gays coming out of the closet only to be imprisoned by the financial demands of the three bedroom semi — a case of goodbye leather bar, hello leather sofa.
We can look forward to Turner’s take on the opening years of the twenty-first century, for there is plenty of material there for him to get his teeth into. In the meantime, this fact-filled and thought-provoking book is an excellent introductory commentary on a much-misunderstood, devious decade.
Very occasionally a book comes along that changes your life, in the sense that it alters your thinking and causes you to re-evaluate the things that ‘everyone knows’. Time’s Anvil by Richard Morris is such a book.
‘Have you found anything interesting?’ is, according to Morris, the question he is most commonly asked at archaeological digs. It is also the kind of query likely to be aimed at a book reader. So let us try to address some of the questions frequently asked about books.
What is it about?
On one level Time’s Anvil is a book about archaeology, which doesn’t sound particularly promising. Archaeology can be a niche subject, and it can be arid. The book starts from what may seem an innocuous topic: a survey of the archaeology of Britain – or more specifically England – across time. However, that includes both the entire history of Britain and the history of archaeology itself, and the book is notable for both its breadth and depth. It has the vision to sweep across whole swathes of time - ‘for most of the last million years ‘our island story’ has been nothing of the kind’ – and also to focus in immense detail on single events – the fascinating section re-interpreting the Battle of Naseby is based on the distribution patterns of musket balls found on the battlefield. It thus offers a comprehensive overview of English history and archaeology, and a series of specific examples – including lost villages, cathedrals, industrial developments, holocaust denial - that are absorbing in themselves, but which also form the evidence on which the central theses are built.
What is it really about?
From this combination of wide and narrow focus, with a secure and meticulous base, Richard Morris challenges many of the common beliefs about what we ‘think we know’ about the past. It is thus an extremely timely book, at a point when the question of ‘Englishness’ and ‘Britishness’ is a daily topic in newspapers and the public conscience.
Morris’s book is sub-titled ‘England, Archaeology and the Imagination’, and it is the last of these words that may be emphasised. Morris states that the book is mainly ‘about how the past is read, and about what we ourselves bring to the reading as well as what we find’. Yet he dares much more than this. Exploring the past, he says, ‘harnesses the imaginative power and curiosity that characterizes our species. The thrust of a question will alter according to who asks it, when, or why, and within what framework of thought or knowledge.’ It is his task to challenge the ‘framework of thought’ that we use when examining the past, particularly the way that we have tended to buy into grand narratives and simplistic divisions of the past into discrete periods.
His ability to look across the whole of time leads him to see patterns of continuity and development that stretch across hundreds and thousands of years. As he puts it, ‘the argument of this book is that we have underestimated connections between periods, things, institutions and ideas that are normally studied apart and assumed to be unrelated.’ Commonly used labels like ‘Roman Britain’, ‘Dark Ages’ and ‘Industrial Revolution’ hide more than they reveal: ‘we may well have created, or at least exaggerated, a history of ‘pivotal moments’ and ‘watersheds’ between epochs of our own making. More recent approaches to material culture give more weight to endurance and continuity, and (on the broader view) to gradually changing systems wherein different elements co-evolve at different speeds, in different ways.’
For example, he demonstrates that the long-held (and still popular) view that Britain was covered in woodland prior to Anglo-Saxon times is a myth, created because ‘a sparsely settled prehistoric landscape was … indispensable to a particular view of English selfhood: the isolationist legend of an English nation that was self assured and self-sufficient’. ‘The idea of a near-empty prehistoric Britain had been a self-reinforcing illusion,’ he explains, whereas in fact ‘in many parts of prehistoric Britain land was divided as comprehensively and intricately as in any later period’. The result was that by 1000BC ‘there was probably less woodland in England than there is now’.
In the Vale of Pickering, to take one of his numerous detailed examples, there was ‘a filament of farms’. ‘Taking shape around 500BC, it was occupied for more than a thousand years. In existence long before the Romans arrived, still existing after their army left…’ It is not long before we are forced to re-assess what we ‘think we know’, and realise that the use of simplistic terms like ‘Roman Britain’ can have a seriously distorting effect on our understanding of the past.
Morris uses a succession of examples like this both to explore the historical grand narratives that have been habitually used, and to demonstrate the way that the development of archaeology has served to undermine them.
Is it convincing?
One of the book’s major strengths, and most noticeable features, is the way it builds its overarching statements from meticulously researched detail. A text of 400 pages is followed by 50 pages of footnotes and references; the sheer number of sources, articles and books cited is remarkable. It is no surprise to find the slightly rueful note in the acknowledgements stating the book was begun in 2000, but not finished until 2011. The reader can follow any of the leads provided by the footnotes and be assured of finding persuasive and comprehensive evidence for the conclusions that Morris draws.
To take a single instance, his thought-provoking comments on Bronze Age metal-working are accompanied by a footnote directing the reader to an intriguingly-titled article in World Archaeology: ‘The faerie smith meets the bronze industry: magic versus science in the interpretation of prehistoric metal-making’. This article, with its keywords ‘Prehistoric; Eurasia; archaeometallurgy; ritual; science’, turns out to provide precisely the evidence required for Morris’s point about attitudes to swords and the significance of the Excalibur story.
Which is better, the plot or the characters?
Both are prominent here. The central plot of the book – the development of archaeology and understanding across time – is weighty, but Morris lightens the tone by basing it around a series of characters. Firstly the narrative is set within his own life story and experiences – he starts with an account of his grandparents, and returns to events in his own life at various points. Secondly, he provides lively portraits of the people who have developed archaeology in Britain. The result is to make the book very readable, but also anchors the narrative in human lives and shows how the course of archaeology, and by extension the way we interpret the past, is hugely dependent on the character of the person undertaking the investigation.
Did you enjoy it?
Enormously. The text is easy to read for the non-specialist, but constantly challenging from the very start, and full of well-expressed observations or comments that resonate long after the book is finished. At times there is a Brysonesque liveliness, for example in the portraits of many of the characters involved in archaeological explorations. There is also an underlying mischievousness that is appealing and, probably intentionally, disconcerting. By the time Morris says, half way through the book, that to accept the conventional view of the emergence of early England ‘you would first of all need to believe in ‘Roman Britain’’, the reader is already alert to the idea that many old simplicities need to be re-examined and re-evaluated, and questioning the very existence of ‘Roman Britain’ seems natural enough.
It is only by the end of the book that one fully appreciates the force of Morris’s seemingly off-hand remark back in the Prologue when mentioning Cold War documents: ‘Historians will study them for years not because anyone – yet – doubts that there was a Cold War…’ To suggest, as an aside, that the term ‘Cold War’ might be invalid seems breathtakingly cavalier, but the thoughtful reader will return to that statement and ponder its merits. The single word ‘yet’ is sufficient to provoke whole chains of speculation and reasoning.
What was your favourite bit?
One of the most fascinating passages in the book is a discussion of ‘leaving sites’ – places where objects have been deliberately deposited, often apparently for ritual purposes. A well-known example is Flag Fen in Cambridgeshire, where weapons, jewellery, pottery and bones were deposited beside a prehistoric pier, ‘weapons on one side …, bones on the other.’ Morris points out that hundreds, perhaps thousands of such leaving sites have been identified. Most of these are associated with water – pools, springs, rivers – but deliberate deposition can happen anywhere. Morris notes the continuation of such behaviours at least until the Middle Ages, and shows how Bedivere’s return of Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake is precisely part of this tradition. However, he fails to extend these insights about leaving sites to the modern age.
It is entirely in line with Morris’s emphasis on continuity that ritual deposition of objects is still with us on a daily basis. Visit almost any well or pool, and you will find that people have thrown coins in. This most famously happens at the Trevi Fountain in Rome, where a specific tradition has been established, but equally, and inexplicably, occurs with water features in garden centres. No doubt there is some association with legends of wishing wells, but it is clear that when we throw a coin in a fountain we are unconsciously following a ritual tradition that reaches back many thousands of years. Some years ago I came across a fallen tree trunk on a riverside walk in Somerset. Walkers, presumably over a period of years, had used a convenient stone to hammer hundreds of coins into crevices in the bark. This seemed inexplicable at the time, but I now see that it is just another modern example of a leaving site.
As with so many features of Morris’s book, reflection on this leads to a range of new thoughts. Is it possible that the coins and other objects found by metal detectors in fields across the country were not all accidentally lost, but in some cases deliberately placed in the soil, for instance to ensure good yields from harvests? Is it possible that the Bronze Age weapons discovered under water at Moor Sand in Devon were not from a shipwreck (no traces of a boat have been discovered) but were ritually deposited in the sea, for instance to secure safe passage in the dangerous waters of the English Channel?
This single example of leaving sites suggests the richness of thinking that may be stimulated by Morris’s challenges to our conventional expectations and assumptions.
Are there any illustrations?
The book is not profusely illustrated, but some 60 photographs, sketches and diagrams are included to exemplify or accompany passages in the text. They range from drawings of a Neolithic flint implement to a 1917 mail-order advertisement for housing (‘Aladdin Service – a complete home or a complete city’), and serve to complement the breadth of coverage that Morris achieves.
Did it change your life?
Yes. Not in a revolutionary or apocalyptic way, but through shifting some points of focus, and altering and extending ideas that were already part of my thinking. It thus demonstrated its own thesis, that there is a continuum of processes that forms what we are and what we think, and a ‘nexus of interdependencies’ that determines what we are able to see and how we are able to develop.
‘Alter an assumption, and you get a new answer to an old question.’ The questions we tend to ask are conditioned by our presuppositions, and we frequently anticipate the answers we find, because we hear what we want to hear. It takes courage to ask different questions, or accept that evidence may lead us into new paths and new ways of thinking. Time’s Anvil is a book that offers important insights into the processes that have shaped the history of England, and the processes that shape our own approach to the past. It should be on everybody’s birthday and Christmas list.
Imagination and precision are two attributes which we might think are in conflict, with the former being a product of freedom and the latter a matter of fact-based exactitude. But must they be perpetually at loggerheads? Can the seemingly fey lead to a clearer apprehension and comprehension of deeper, and possibly permanent, realities? An exhibition of works by Paul Klee — the UK’s first major show of his art for over a decade — gives us a chance to consider these questions.
Born in Switzerland in 1879, Klee started out as a musician, but decided to become a painter instead and, after a period of training in Munich followed by a visit to Italy, returned to his homeland early in the last century and began etching before going to Germany, where he launched himself into a successful career spanning the years between 1906 and 1933. He was involved with the Expressionist Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) group, which included Kandinsky and Marc (the group’s name originated from both artists having a mutual liking for blue, whilst Kandinsky liked riders, and Marc horses) which was, arguably, the most important modern art movement in pre-Great War Germany. Klee would — after the end of the war —go on to teach at the Bauhaus in Weimar and Dessau, followed by a period at Dusseldorf Academy. Now, with an exhibition building on new research, and containing paintings, drawings and watercolours from collections around the world reunited and displayed in a way originally intended by their creator, we have a fresh chance to examine Klee’s work. Which works best give us an idea of what he was trying to achieve?
Klee defined his work of free fantasy as ‘taking a line for a walk’. But what Klee had in mind here was a series of imaginative strolls. In ‘Flower Bed’ (1913) we get an explosion of browns and reds and greens, whilst ‘Friendly Place’ (1919) appears to be a bustling cafe full of human interaction. ‘City Between Realms’ (1921) gives us a series of Heath Robinson-like hanging shapes. ‘Comedy’ (1921) appears as anything but — it strikes an ironically disturbing note with a series of cartoon-like figures radiating fear, confusion and up-for-it sexuality. ‘Analysis of Diverse Perversities’ (1922) shows a figure with a telescope along with a bird among machines. ‘Fish Magic’ (1925) gives us fish which, although they are in dark water, still stand out clearly in view. With Valpurgis Night’ (1935) we have sinister, jagged yet flowing witch-like figures with pointy countenances looming up against a night sky. In ‘Park near Lu” (1938) the depiction of this place appears mysterious: it can either be taken as a riot of bushes and branches, or as map-like, showing its layout of paths and trees.
But — as the varied and sometimes disturbing contents of this selection hints —there was more to Klee’s work than met the eye. He didn’t simply want to be some kind of amusing illustrator. Rather, he envisaged his work to be a reflection of transcendence and we can see him almost striving to get beyond the outward and visible to the inward —the essence of existence — in his ‘Static-Dynamic Gradation’ (1923) and ‘Steps’ (1929). The former shows different coloured oblongs, as if radiating from a single centre, whilst the latter shows similar shapes but in ordered rows. It’s as if he’s clawing his way, on his knees and with bare hands, down to buried treasure; the inner core of existence. During his time at the Bauhaus, Klee wrote a book, The Thinking Eye, in which he put forward his theory of visual equivalents for spiritual states. Indeed, some of his work resembles a combination of paintings and symbols, a sort of fusion of visual art with writing so, in ‘Greeting’ (1922), we see how he uses red and blue arrows facing each other to suggest the act of meeting.
He may have had a single vision, but he combined different sources to achieve it. He sometimes wanted to express concepts in an almost mathematical way. And in trying to achieve this, he used not only the natural world but also music. He attempted to use visual forms to illustrate music, believing that his favourite musical form — eighteenth-century counterpoint — could be depicted by gradations of colour and value. Klee also valued the art of children and the purity of their expression which he felt it reflected (although it might be argued that, with children’s art, directness and immaturity can go hand in hand, making it a potentially detrimental form of depiction for its adult users and admirers alike).
But whilst Klee and his associates were triumphing in the art scene, the Nazis were winning the battle of the streets. in 1933, when Hitler came to power, Klee was dismissed from his teaching post by them and then left for his homeland. They regarded his output as ‘degenerate art’, removing some 102 of his works from German galleries. Klee, meanwhile, became even more prolific, despite the twin burdens of flight from the productive venue where he’d spent most of his working life, combined with bad health. He died in 1940.
On one level, it’s easy to see why the Nazis judged Klee’s work as they did. He was influenced by Blake, Beardsley, Ensor and Goya. In other words, his work was a risky mixture of the mystical, the decadently camp, the macabre, and the harshly realistic. Either disaster or genius could emerge from such a combination of influences: the outcome would be the latter.
Today his work can appear fanciful, but it’s clear why it appeared decadent to those whose taste was governed by fearful philistinism afraid of anything which, however whimsical, might appear as some sort of serious challenge to the concept of order: there is, in what we see here, a positive exuberance combined with an individualistic sense of the visionary which combine to challenge the mass conformity of the party — any party. (The same can be said about Surrealism, with its attempts to depict the disturbing content of the sub-conscious.) But it can be said that — whether they realised it or not —the real threat to the Nazis wasn’t from Klee’s whimsicality: it was from the way his work, with its search for essences, suggested that there were truths which were deeper than the simplistic blood and soil beliefs of Nazism. (In connection with Klee’s search for deeper realities, with their implication of order which could be examined — and so evaluated and tabulated — it’s both interesting and relevant to note that he inscribed numbers on his works with in accordance with a personal cataloguing system: one wonders how many agents and gallery-owners would wish that their clients followed suit today.)
Klee’s work in this exhibition can be said to show the power of the playful. But it also shows the threat of the radical, especially when it is expressed with playfulness. And it has relevance for us today as it has the possibility of a serious application given the current never-ending cascade of signs and symbols with which we are confronted and have to evaluate. Klee gives clues about how they can be positively mastered to show the hidden meanings to which they may point.
Just because God was invented by man, it doesn’t mean He doesn’t exist. Over the years man has invented - perhaps even created - a number of intangible phenomena which arguably exist: love, democracy, hypocrisy, the public interest, etc. Why not God too? And not just God the image, or God the myth, or God who resides in the poorly attended church, but God the seemingly autonomous being who works in mysterious ways, who is there wherever we are and who makes us feel that, no matter how poor a hand life has dealt us, we are somehow beloved. And it is often the case that our political and cultural creations end up like Frankenstein’s monster, with a life of their own, no longer addressing our immediate needs but seemingly working against us. Isn’t this God to a tee?
It is in this spirit that Francis Spufford’s highly readable Unapologetic should be read. Spufford is no Bible-bashing Christian out to convert the agnostic, or to somehow prove Richard Dawkins wrong. Indeed, he largely agrees with Dawkins and the first half of the message on the infamous ‘atheist bus’ - that ‘There’s probably no God’. When it comes to probabilities, the weighing up the facts for and against God, you tend to find that the ‘facts’ for His existence are very thin when compared to the facts against. But, ‘despite everything’, Spufford manages quite persuasively in about 220 pages to suggest that there is more to life than ‘the facts’, more to life than ‘the felt completeness of a world of supermarket trolleys, hangovers, suburban Sundays, toothache, drum ‘n’ bass, romantic love, diminishing marginal utility and the smell of fresh paint’ (page 70), and that without a spiritual side to what we do in our day-to-day comings and goings, we are not in truth living.
There is certainly a lot of anger against the superficiality of life in the book, but it is an anger tempered by Spufford’s enthusiastic embrace of those other worthy emotions love and mercy, giving us now a book that does indeed ‘make surprising emotional sense’. The world is far from perfect, both in humanity’s relationship with nature and in our relations with each other, and anger is an entirely rational response. But Spufford, whom we feel has suffered with the rest of us, has returned from his personal trip to Hell (in the form of a very difficult break-up) with an altered and wider view, which acknowledges anger within a loving and forgiving context. Some might argue that this is modern Christianity defined. At the very least it is common decency.
Spufford usefully reserves his anger for the logically-sound but emotionally-flawed arguments of new atheists, which at best reduce the spiritual side of man to a psychological response to external stimuli, and at worst reduce even this to an evolutionary-neurological phenomenon. He therefore focuses on the second half of the message on that atheist bus, the bit that advises the dithering agnostic to ‘Stop worrying and enjoy your life’. The destructiveness of this argument comes from its suggestion that enjoyment is the sole aim of human existence, with all other emotions, especially those that suggest all is not well with the world, politely ignored as if they were embarrassing guests at a wedding feast.
Enjoyment is rather a superficial response to external stimuli, even if it does suggest that, for once, the world is working well. But it is the other emotions – ‘hope, boredom, curiosity, anxiety, irritation, fear, joy, bewilderment, hate, tenderness, despair, relief, exhaustion and the rest’ as Spufford lists them (page 8) – that lead us to dig deeper into life, that lead us to question surface appearances and strive for something we call the truth. A life merely enjoyed is a life unexamined. Spufford’s aspiration for us all to dig deeper than enjoyment is to be admired, and this alone makes his book worth reading.
It certainly does not take much to appreciate life at least a little more profoundly. For instance, in 1997 while in the depths of emotional despair, Spufford heard the middle movement (adagio) from Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto (K622) as if for the first time. It’s a popular enough piece, instantly recognisable and therefore easy to ignore. But at the right moment in our lives it might just reveal a fundamental truth to us as it did to Spufford. He was struck not just by its beauty (a rather empty aesthetic concept), but by what it said about the world.
It said: everything you fear is true. And yet. And yet. Everything you have done wrong, you have really done wrong. And yet. And yet. The world is wider than you fear it is, wider than the repeating rigmaroles in your mind, and it has this [adagio] in it, as truly as it contains your unhappiness. Shut up and listen, and let yourself count, just a little bit, on a calm that you do not have to be able to make for yourself, because here it is, freely offered. You are still deceiving yourself, said the music, if you don’t allow for the possibility of this. There is more going on here than what you deserve, or don’t deserve. There is this, as well. (page 16)
The aesthetic act of listening to the middle movement from the Clarinet Concerto is not a passive act; it is not just to unwind (as Classic FM might have it). Neither does it consist in an active listening simply to the notes. Rather it is to engage in a three way conversation with both the piece of music and the world it is aiming to describe. Mozart’s piece, with its unstrained tendernesses, ‘sounds the way mercy would sound’ (page 16), and in its offering the listener more than he deserves, the piece is mercy exemplified.
Unapologetic contains a fascinating précis of the story of that Hamlet-like figure Christ, and perhaps a less interesting apologia concerning the conservative politics of the Christian church, but it is Spufford’s examination of mercy that is key, since it opens up the philosophical area relating to truth, human values, and our sense of the infinite. Like God, mercy is another of those human creations that has become untethered from its moorings and floats above us, seemingly independent of how we may choose to interpret and use it. It exists deeper in the human consciousness than its distant cousin concepts, those everyday workhorses equality and justice. Not a day goes by without the law being invoked in the name of justice, or being changed in the name of equality. Mercy, on the other hand, does not operate the same way. Like the Clarinet Concerto, and like many of the acts of Jesus as described by the Evangelists, it offers freely without asking of anything in return. It does not consider whether we deserve what we get (justice) or whether everyone else ought to be given the same (equality). It is a less calculating emotion, which nowadays exists mainly within families and circles of close friends.
But it does occasionally reach out across the divide that exists between complete strangers, and it is then that we know that we belong to society, and that we are not merely a gathering of individuals. It is because of this need that the story of the merciful treatment of the prodigal son makes sense to us. If justice were a higher virtue then the story of a father killing a fatted calf and throwing a banquet for the son who had thrown away his inheritance, rather than for the son who had worked diligently in the meantime, would fail as a story. But it does not; the story has meaning, even for non-Christians. As Spufford puts it, ‘We could only join the [prodigal son’s] older brother in asking for fairness, nothing but fairness, if we didn’t see ourselves at all in the lost boy. Since we find ourselves in him as well, we too will need, at times, something far less cautious than justice’ (page 132).
The days when even human labour and its creations will be freely given are still a way off, but – unlike acts of equality and justice – acts of mercy transcend the present moment and point to a possible future that many might describe as heaven on Earth. And in a world of sin (or what Spufford calls the Human Propensity to Fuck things Up, or ‘HPtFtU’ for short) the need for mercy is undeniable. ‘Use every man after his desert, and who shall ‘scape whipping?’ asks Hamlet. Indeed. In a just world we are all going to Hell in a handcart. From time to time we need to be given something we do not deserve: we need to confess our fuck ups and we need to seek forgiveness and hope for mercy, if not from our neighbour or from society, then from God Himself.
This is all well and good if by ‘God’ we mean that untethered human creation, that sense of duty that is ours yet not ours, that voice of our conscience that we cannot easily silence. But if we go further than this and try to define God without reference to man we can come unstuck. Spufford’s description of the Big Man is not, of course, your Terry Gilliam-inspired, white robed, flowing beard type, although I personally still find that image authoritative (anyone that old and still wearing immaculate, stain-free clothing is to be respected, if not feared). Spufford’s description is more like Terry Eagleton’s in his 2009 book Reason, Faith and Revolution where he eschewed empirically verifiable evidence and described God as ‘a condition of possibility’. After all, in describing the world you have to stop somewhere, and reason, according to Eagleton, ‘does not go all the way down’.
In a similar vein Spufford stops somewhere, describing God as an ‘elusive foundation’ (page 73). However, this elusiveness does not stop him, in chapter 3, from actively (if that is the word) looking for the foundation. Sitting in an otherwise empty church he closes his eyes and begins to pick at the layers of sound that cocoon his existence: firstly at the random thoughts, voices and tunes that abhor a mental vacuum, then at the sound of the wind knocking a branch against the window, then at the distant sound of traffic, then at the background hiss we know as silence, until he is left with…what? He struggles to describe it, since it exists beyond the world of description. Logically it is without a description. But Spufford feels it all the same, as an elusive, shimmering light behind everyday objects.
So far so good. But if it is possible to experience something or someone who is beyond all experience, or who is the condition of all experience, then we are going to contradict ourselves. We are going to end up claiming that God provides the conditions for his own existence. This is the kind of logical impossibility would be intolerable to Richard Dawkins, but Spufford seems quite relaxed about the whole problem of contradiction. Elsewhere, when confronted by the contradictions arising from the problem of evil (if God is so good, why does He allow people to suffer?) he acknowledges that there is no immediate or logical answer. However, ‘most Christian believers don’t spend their time and their emotional energy stuck at this point of contradiction…The question of suffering proves to be one of those questions which is replaced by other questions, rather than being answered. We move on from it, without abolishing the mystery, or seeing clear conceptual ground under our feet’ (page 104).
There is a truth here. After all, we cannot logically explain the meaning of the Clarinet Concerto without introducing some non-rational, emotional concept. In the world of humane values, logical consistency is not the ultimate criterion. When you undertake many of your most cherished activities – be this business, sport, art, or religion – ‘you do not, on the whole, ask it to account for itself philosophically from first principles every morning, any more than you subject your relations with your human significant other to daily cost-benefit analysis’ (page 208). In fact the strength of the Christian religion is that it has not collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions and even upheld them as a mystery, allowing Christians to cope all the better with the more humdrum contradictions of everyday life.
But this accommodation to contradiction is also its weakness, because as a result it makes no effort to transcend current contradictions. This is not to say that there is an as yet undiscovered logical solution to such problems that good Christians everywhere really ought to seek out. Rather that the solution put forward by Spufford – to replace the problem by a better problem – is restricted to the spiritual realm. The drawback is that, far from throwing himself into a closer study of the object, Spufford experiences the infinite only from a subjective standpoint, in a quiet church, abstracted from the detail of everyday life. I would not deny that such moments are useful, or even meaningful, especially for people who make it their business to study the world with a view to changing it, and who therefore need time to think or even to retreat into a feeling of pure subjectivity, but this sense of the infinite is only really an echo of the truer infinity of possibilities that we experience through interrogating nature. Our aim should be to somehow ‘move on’ from the more tangible contradictions of the empirical world, not just from the academic contradictions of theology.
In what might this ‘moving on’ consist? By doing precisely what Spufford himself might do but with a practical bent, by refusing to accept uncritically how our day-to-day contradictions are framed. For instance, all the world’s environmental problems seem to stem from the concept of limited resources. This is superficially true; at any given moment there are, for instance, only so many barrels of oil in the world. Yet human desires and aspirations that require the use of oil do not appear to drop off in proportion to its use. Quite the contrary. And the overcoming of the social and technological contradictions this leads to is not without its problems.
But this represents only the start of a process of understanding, whereby we come to grasp the many factors at play: the processes by which oil and other fuels are extracted from nature and put to use; how new sources of energy are discovered; the role of technology in improving mechanical efficiency; how the changing scientific notions of atomic structure have changed our very definition of energy; the cultural impact of travel; the importance of physical as opposed to virtual presence. These are not simply interesting questions; they are the moral imperatives (since they are wholly wrapped up with human action) thrown up by the investigative process. It is almost as if the oil in the barrel is shouting them out. Each discovery along this road throws up new imperatives and points the way to further discoveries. And so the finitude of oil becomes a starting point for an infinite journey exploring nature and man’s relationship to nature.
It is in our conscious interactions with the resistant, objective world, not in the silence of a church, that we find true transcendence. To transcend the present, grasp the infinite, and experience our own spiritual side we need only examine the object before us (whether that ‘object’ is a barrel of oil, an entire petro-chemical industry or the whole of modern society) in interactive detail and make ourselves receptive to what it is saying and where it is pointing. Perhaps Spufford senses this. He is certainly sensible enough to suggest by the end of the book that Heaven is not ‘up there’ somewhere but really on Earth. Or rather, that it has a dual existence as both an ideal goal and a material theatre of operations. The traditional Christian Utopia (the Pearly Gates, the keys of St Peter, etc) may or may not exist, he says, but in pursuing the ideal ‘we change the shape of the possible world…till we discover fullnesses and kindnesses we wouldn’t have believed we could manage’ (page 219). Amen to that.
As an atheist I was surprised to find on reading Unapologetic that Christianity does indeed make some ‘emotional sense’. But as a spiritual person I know that emotional sense is not the whole truth. The whole truth will never be found by abstracting from the world and retreating to an elusive foundation, but by incorporating into what we think we already know the strange truths yielded up by nature each time we revisit it in earnest.
Whenever we engage in discourse on how the Western canon has inevitably moulded the modern Man, I find myself (as an Asian, or in this case, someone who is excluded from the traditional West) face-to-face with the thesis that Western cultural imperialism did not end when the British and other colonies gained their independence. If anything, it is evident that even Asians in this day and age still flock to the Ivy Leagues in America and Oxbridge in UK to pursue a prestigious education. In light of this, the idea which espoused by Walter Mignolo in his essay, ‘Deconlonial Aesthesis’, is that because this sensing, feeling and experiencing of our world still retain traces of Western superiority not only in our history but in our ways of thinking as well, we have to acknowledge this lingering effect of Western imperialism, and eventually transgress cultural boundaries. As aptly put by a Singaporean student referred to in the article:
But coloniality didn’t end in 1963, when the British let your country go. It is not just the business of unfortunate Third Worlders in distant lands, still floundering in corruption and poverty because they lacked the vision and the statecraft of a Lee Kuan Yew.
Coloniality continues, in fact, whenever bright young men and women from all over the world decide to cap off their educations by going on pilgrimage to pinnacles of Western civilization; when they dedicate themselves to the Western canon and walk in the shadows of gothic cathedrals and imperial facades, and learn that this is the good life.
It continues whenever anyone anywhere in the world walks down a street and sees a billboard on the modern cathedral that is a shopping mall, and sees in that conjunction of power, wealth, and beauty an image of desire. In other words, it happens these days not by the strength of arms or the power of states, but by the captivation of the eyes, the training of the taste, by unwritten rules of thumb – that we all learn everywhere, without even knowing it. Coloniality is far from over: it is all over. It is perhaps the most powerful set of forces in the modern world.
There is little disagreement with the fact that the Western world – mainly due to far-reaching colonisation especially by the British Empire at its peak in the early 20th century – has had a great impact on the modern world we live in. However, to what extent can we attribute the symptoms modernity to consequences of ‘coloniality’? In other words, how much the modern man’s thinking is a product of Western imperialist culture, and how much of it is due to other social forces?
For instance, that a modern man would say that Classical art evokes feelings of the Beautiful or Sublime could perhaps be associated with the propagation influence of Western culture, but ‘Western’ liberal democratic ideals such as Freedom and Equality have often been argued to be universal ideals which transcend cultural borders. We could say capitalism is Western, but there was communism as well; consumerist culture may be Western, but in so many third-world countries consumerism thrives too. So, is coloniality then just a misnomer for modernity? The list goes on. Wherein lies the line which distinguishes what of modernity is Western, and what is not?
To begin to distinguish what of modernity can be attributed to the West, it seems then that we have to first identify what exactly the West is. However, we are at once beset with definitional difficulties, because it seems the West by itself in the first place is an inherently unstable concept. Geographically speaking for instance, the West is sometimes seen as Western Europe, sometimes including Russia, or now more Anglo-American. It is never constant. As Edward Said said, the Orient was a concept that was invented by the West to alienate, by exotising, romanticising and neglecting, the Other (Middle Eastern, African, East Asian etc.); in so doing, it would conversely define and stabilise the concept of the West. This is best elucidated in terms of power: when we tear the binary apart – which together form a universal set that encompasses everything in that category ie. male/female, black/white, etc. – we realise that the legitimacy of one is usually defined in terms of its exercise of power over the other; alone they cannot stand. Simply put, if the King had no subordinates to lord over, what then is the use of his status as King? Without his subordinates to dominate, the King is useless; without the Orient to subjugate, the West is powerless. Now that we have recognised this binary that exists, it seems that the West as a concept by itself is tenuous at best.
If the West is already so difficult to define, when we turn toward the negation of the West, it seems it is fraught with even more problems. It is not even clear if postcolonialism is grounded on what the West is not, what is not the West or what not the West is. Perhaps even, it is all three. We do not know. These are subtle, nuanced differences, but they nonetheless ought to be explored with a certain rigour should one seek to pose a veritable criticism the idea of the West, if at all. Moreover, it seems terribly ironic even, that postcolonialism, as a theory against unjustified subordination to the West, should by definition forever remain a critique always referring in retrospect to the West (read: post-colonial). Both the affirmation and negation of an idea serves to secure the inception of the idea in itself; if I tell you ‘do not eat the apple’, would I not have given you the idea of eating the apple in the first place? Similarly, if one constantly form arguments against colonialism, and categorise such critical theory as ‘postcolonial’, when can we finally, if ever, move away from colonialism altogether?
I have presented the foremost difficulties that postcolonialism faces as a critical theory. However, at this juncture it is necessary to state this: all that has been said, the nebulousness of West in no way detracts from the existence of the West itself and the imperialist power it has exerted –and continues to exert – on all other cultures. Just because a sailor cannot see the end of the mist which enshrouds him all around, does not mean that the mist does not exist altogether. And if the sailor’s torchlight shall lead the way to different shores unbeknownst to man, so be it. The power of colonialism, though neither absolute nor clear-cut, is nonetheless blindingly prevalent and if I may, rife even, in liberal capitalist democracies all over the world today. Here is where decolonial aesthesis can elucidate the vagaries of postcolonialism, as an ongoing project to unravel the dogmatic mysteries that surround both the colonisers and the colonised.
But decoloniality is not the same as postcolonialism, in that it is not an offshoot of the postmodern project advocated by some general category of ‘people of colour’; it is more specifically grounded in history, predominantly in 16th century Latin America, which forms the foundation of the subsequent 19th century colonisations of the East and consequently the concept of the Orient. Now then, decolonial aesthesis in particular focuses on one’s sensory perception of the world and the social structures that one exists within; while the other branches of epistemology and hermeneutics deal with discourse of knowing and understanding, aesthesis deals with experiencing. This concept of experiences is very important when we come face-to-face with the focus of rationality espoused by the modern West. Having recognised that the primacy of science and reason from the Western Age of Enlightenment, culminating in modernity and its dire consequences (read: Holocaust and systemic violence), decolonial aesthesis seeks then to ‘delink’ one’s sensibilities from such European notions of rationality, not by simply espousing irrationality instead, but to offer a third-way option beyond dichotomies, beyond the apparent totality of Reason.
But the question is not how to retreat or how to prune yourself back to some pristine, native state. In fact, it is the opposite: how to recognize the narrowness of this so-called broadened mind – to realize that Europe is not the universe – and to take your sensing and knowing beyond those dominant ideas of the true, the good, and the beautiful. To move towards a pluri-verse that gives dignity to both the girl in the pajamas and the one in the little black dress – and yet to do so in a way that, unlike Western liberalism, is not naïve about either the ‘equality’ of the two, or about how we got from the one to the other.
Even in the Western canon we can see evidence of strong binaries dominant: mind/body, good/evil, capitalism/marxism, bourgeois/proletariat, existence/essence, colonisers/colonised, the list goes on. In the globalised era today we need to recognise that the world is not, and cannot be, polarised in such simplistic dichotomies; that could only be the wishful thinking of a foolish child. The world in all its byzantine wonder far surpasses any possible naive generalisations – we must ultimately recognise that meaning only means anything insofar as it exists within its context.
If I say ‘the sun is as big as the moon’, it only holds from the reference frame of an observer on earth, because in physical terms it is known that the Sun is far greater than a hundred moons. Similarly, in politics for instance, accepting the paradigm of left or right-wing societies is to neglect possibilities (and continued existence) of indigenous communities as well. Once we manage to extricate ourselves from the idea that Western thought is the ‘way to go’, we are immediately presented with endless possibilities to experience for ourselves. History, as a narrative of struggles between opposing powers, is passé; now, a new narrative consisting of infinite subjective, personal experiences which transgress culture has only just begun.
The answer, then, is not to fight a polarised war, but to accept that there is no such war to be waged in such a pluralised world. Is it then really possible that all cultures are equally represented? Of course not. Surely there will exist dominant ideologies such as the Western canon right now; the point is not to self-righteously ‘Orientalise’ other cultures, nor is it then to bitterly demonise the dominant West and all its beauty and blame all that has gone wrong in modern history on it; the point is to recognise the West is only one of the many cultures that exist in the world, and that revolutions do not stem from society, but first within the person.
Granted, coloniality presently itself subversively through norms in our everyday lives – and that is precisely we have such disciplines of decolonial aesthetics to question and elucidate such invisible nuances that affect us, so that we can analyse such subjective experiences to seek answers that is true and meaningful for a particular context. We are not merely products of the sum of the societal forces which mould us; we have the ability to make out for ourselves the circumstances that surround us. We are will, and that is why we are more than them all.
So, how deeply does the fish knife cut? Very deeply indeed. The world is currently still deeply rooted in colonial power, be it in politics, aesthetics, literature or philosophy. Plato’s Republic is a seminal scholarly text for politics. Nietzsche declares that the Judeo-Christian God is dead. The Nazi Holocaust is the sin of the century. America, the police of the world, justifies its invasion of Afghanistan as a ‘War on Terror’. But history has already unfolded; that much is inevitable. It is precisely this epiphany which is necessary for the next step: how else, apart from a Western-centric worldview, can we interpret and experience the world? How can we move forward? Looking at the recent times, as China and India rise to (economic, socio-political as well as cultural) power, and America and Europe struggle to keep up, perhaps – just perhaps – it may spell an era of change; to quote Sylvia Plath, it truly seems ‘as if the usual order of the world had shifted slightly, and entered a new phase’. As the future draws near, we too must prepare ourselves for a dawn of new beginnings.
We all know that the popular image of Vienna at the beginning of the twentieth century is of a city of contrasts symbolised by the strutting Hapsburg monarchy on the one hand and Freud’s couch with its troubled patients on the other. But is that view correct? This exhibition is a chance to revisit some of that era’s art and see whether it confirms the standard view or gives us a new perspective on the social and political aspects of the period.
As a help towards this, we can reconsider the meaning of the exhibition’s title. According to the National Gallery’s publicity blurb, what makes the year 1900 important is because this was when Vienna’s modern artists rediscovered the works of painters like Friedrich von Amerling and Ferdinand Georg Waldmuller, the so-called Biedermeier period of clear and simple painting a time before the arrival of social changes which, by the end of the nineteenth century, were in full swing. But it might be interesting to think of 1900 in another way. The year 1867 had seen the establishment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and this had ushered-in a time of liberal and democratic reform, urban and economic renewal, and religious and ethnic tolerance. It was a period in which the Viennese middle class — including immigrants with Jewish roots or connections — flourished, but ended with the rise of nationalist and anti-Semitic movements. So the first year of the twentieth century can be seen as a useful — if arbitrary — dividing point in this process. What paintings are outstanding in this exhibition, and do those from 1900 onwards reflect the beginning a definite change in the system of values which predominated in the Empire during this period of churning cosmopolitan change?
Court painter Friedrich von Amerling’s ‘Portrait of Cacilie Freiin von Eskeles’ (1832), shows her with an expression of regret passing across her face and is noteworthy in that her father had campaigned for full Jewish rights, a harbinger of changes to come. But traditional society seems to be holding its own with Gustav Klimt’s ‘Portrait of a Lady in Black’ (about 1894) showing a side view of her and with a look of puzzled annoyance (over a social faux pas?) on her face. ‘Self Portrait’ (1902) by Russian emigre painter and sculptor Teresa Feodorowna Ries, shows social change which has come to fruition — she looks down at us with confidence both as a woman and an artist.
The Impressionistic ‘Nude Self Portrait with Palette’ (1908) by Richard Gerstl shows him with a mixed expression of uncertainty vying with a glimmer of impatient toughness. The artist’s painting of his brother, ‘Portrait of Lieutenant Alois Gerstl’ (1907), shows this army officer with a face that mingles alertness and fear — an evocation of impending social change and its upheavals, or is the officer simply a conservative, or even a martinet, whose short fuse is in the process of being ignited by his brother’s ‘artiness’?
With the institution of the family, usually seen as a bellwether of society, we get mixed visual messages. ‘The Markt Family’ (1907) by Alois Delug is a light-hearted work showing a happy mother with her children and a dog. By way of contrast, we get ‘Children playing’ (1909) by Oskar Kokoschka, showing doll-like girls, sitting side by side, and whose wide-eyed stares give the impression that they’re planning something nasty. In his ‘Portrait of Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat (1909), Kokoschka shows this couple, of Jewish extraction, with a semi-fearful alertness, as if sensing that their presence is tolerated, not welcomed. In Anton Kolig’s ‘Portrait of the Schaukal Family’ (1911) we see its members reading and drawing, in other words living as individuals. But we can read too much into this. Yes, we can take this picture as a metaphor for disintegration of family and social life, but we might also think that it simply shows a family whose members were, whilst united, also able to have individual interests. But by 1918 we have the despair-filled ‘The Family (Self Portrait)’ (1918) by Egon Schiele, showing him and a model (his wife was dead by the time the picture was painted) with naked, sagging flesh, along with a child (who was added later to the scene).
The paintings in the concluding sections of the exhibition still see tradition and modernity running neck and neck as it were. Tradition continues to makes a stand with the ‘Posthumous Portrait of Empress Elisabeth’ (1899) by Gyula Benczur, whilst ‘Count Verona’ (1910) by Kokoschka, shows the Count suffering from tuberculosis (at that time an almost certain death sentence) with a skull-like head, a painting which would get the artist at least one critical lashing. Klimt’s Ilia Munk on her Deathbed’ (1912) shows the daughter of one of Vienna’s leading Jewish families with her lips parted almost in serene pleasure. ‘Emperor Franz Joseph on his Deathbed’ (1916) by Franz von Matsch shows the veteran statesman and political survivor at peace as if sleeping, the flowers near his body a contrast with the background plain walls (a feature which reminds us of how he combined his exalted status with frugality — the last emperor to exercise his right of veto at the outcome of a papal election, he slept on a hard army bed).
So, in one sense, this exhibition strengthens the standard image of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s final decades. And this presents us with a conundrum, for the progressive works here attest to the freedom of thought and expression permitted to flourish in what might have been regarded as one of the last societies where such activities would have been allowed — a conservative Catholic state. And that makes us wonder how the two sets of values exemplified in these works as a whole — one on hand Imperial traditionalism, and on the other the beginnings of radical modernism in the arts and psychology — could co-exist within the same society: were traditionalists too complacent or weak to combat these changes, or did those new ideas have only limited appeal and power, so enabling them to be accommodated within mainstream Austro-Hungarian society? Additionally, these exhibits
point, in turn, to the wider conflict of values which was taking place not only within the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but throughout Western Europe before the First World War as traditional concepts were being challenged. But, in addition to historic interest, does this period have any significance for us now?
With any era it is easy - and tempting - to play the parallel period history game and search for similarities between it and today: the forthcoming commemorations of the First World War will doubtless usher-in an orgy of such activity. For both socio-political traditionalists and radicals alike, certainties of order or progress would be challenged and destroyed by that war, just as the hopeful expectations of the post-1945 era would be confronted by the fallout from the end of the Soviet system, globalism, the rise of radical Islam, and Western financial collapse. Perhaps the only lesson we can draw from the differing ideals summoned-up in these portraits - and the conflict which would destroy or change those ideals - is that neither presumption nor despair have a place in historical expectation. Human beings - either singly or socially - cannot exist without beliefs, and hopes for their fulfilment, but as to their outcomes; at the risk of suggesting a cliché, they must expect only the unexpected. But then, it is the best clichés that are true - usually.
Returning to the exhibition, one of its last pictures catches our attention — Klimt’s `Portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl’ (1917-18), which shows only her head and shoulders as complete, along with outlines and a few blobs of colour for the rest of the work. Why does it stand out? Because this semi-completed work is a portent of things to come: she would eventually be sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp. It invites us to reflect on the collective poignancy of these pictures, for we know what their painters and sitters alike didn’t — how their collective story would end: the pistol shots in Sarajevo; the tramp of Nazi boots at the Anschluss; the slow rumbling of trains, eastward.
Journalists know today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chips wrapping. Artists tend to forget this harsh truth. A century ago, the Modernists doubtless thought that they were the last word in their particular artistic spheres — little did they know that Modernism was not the end of the creative line, would end up as just another movement to be ploughed through by students of cultural history. The Young British Artists — YBAs — who sprang to fame back in the 1990s did well for themselves but are in danger of being regarded as having limited relevance today because of their association with the cursed Y-word. This exhibition is a chance to deliver someone from that curse, see if what her work says is still fresh, and to examine some hard contemporary truths regarding the judgement of art.
The career path of Sarah Lucas has been meteoric. Born in 1962, she studied in London at the Working Men’s College, the London College of Printing, and Goldsmith’s College. In 1988, she exhibited in the ground-breaking ‘Freeze’ exhibition, curated by Damien Hirst. Her first solo exhibition was at a disused betting shop, City Racing, in south London which featured her work Penis Nailed to a Board’, based on a tabloid newspaper article concerning S&M sex, which was later exhibited in the controversial ‘Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection’ exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1997. Later, she would garner praise and publicity with works such as ‘Human Toilet Revisited’ (1998), a colour photograph of her sitting on a lavatory whilst smoking a cigarette. Her recent activities have included being exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 2007 and, five years later, curating the ‘Free: art by offenders, secure patients and detainees’ exhibition at London’s Royal Festival Hall.
So, what works from Lucas do we see here? Catching our attention is ‘Sod You Gits’ (1990), a blown-up newspaper feature about a kissogram girl. ‘Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab’ (1992) is a sculpture where, on a table, these culinary items form female breasts and genitalia. ‘Get Hold of This’ (1994) is a sculpture showing strong, grappling arms. From the same year is her photograph ‘Self Portrait with Knickers’, showing the artist in front of a knicker festooned washing line whilst ‘Au Naturel’ (also from 1994) gives us a mattress with melons, oranges, a cucumber and a bucket strategically arranged to summon up male and female private parts. ‘Is Suicide Genetic?’ (1996) is a question we’re asked by a work which comprises a grubby lavatory pan with those words written inside it. Her ‘Self-Portrait with Cigarettes’ (2000) shows the artist’s face outlined in cigarettes and with an expression hovering between the sad and the wistful.
Looking at what’s on offer here, it’s easy to say that Lucas, in her work, has aimed for creating headline-grabbing scandal-provoking material rather than art. Just as it’s easy to side with those who felt that, at the Momart fire — when, in 2004, a number of famous YBA works were destroyed by a conflagration whilst in storage — those artists got what they deserved for producing meretricious, attention-seeking work with which they could fool the public and make a lot of money whilst doing so (more of all this in a moment). But the option of a simplistic put-down — attractive though it may be — is to be resisted in favour of a deeper analysis. The first issue to examine here is whether Lucas, arguably, has let herself down as a serious artist by adopting a playground-vulgarity-cum-cartoonish style which detracts from any important points she might wish to make about the human body in general and female sexuality in particular. ‘Self-Portrait with Skull’ (1996/2013), showing the artist sitting with a skull between her thighs and which greets us at the top of a staircase in the gallery, and ‘Nice Tits’ (2011) consisting of bulging, wobbling, breast-like tights on a wire mesh frame with concrete thighs boots beneath, raise issues about sex and death, and the objectification of women. But Bruegel and Goya did a good job of giving a no-holds-¬barred assessment of humanity think in particular of the latter’s series ‘The Disasters of War’, conveying the savagery of the Peninsular campaign against Napoleon — with straightforward realism.
Having said all that, if Lucas has simply been aiming for a sort of Carry On nudge-nudge wink-wink ethos — or the kind of social shock engineered by a child shouting-out ‘naughty’ words at an adult gathering then her work succeeds very well indeed and follows a well-established, and commendable, tradition of British vulgarity which gives a joyous two fingers to Puritanism, artistic and political alike. (Incidentally, given her status as an epitome of urban cool, it is both amusing and strangely touching when we know that, for a time, she considered relocating to Oxford as she was a fan of that city’s fictional television detective, Inspector Morse.)
That being said, the matter remains that Lucas’s work is an example of the works of art produced by the YBAs, which raise the suspicion that, among some of their number at least, those artists have used their work primarily as a way of garnering fame rather than as a medium of artistic depiction, expression, or investigation. A desire for publicity and its financial usufructs has, seemingly, predominated above all else. If so, the YBAs have simply followed a well-trodden path. By the early years of the twentieth century, the figure of the bohemian bad-lad artist who got fawning recognition from the establishment — giving him glory and fame (and a chance to indulge his belly and groin to the full) while letting his patrons indulge in feeling of `street-cred’ superiority over their fellow bourgeoisie — was a well-established role-model (and, arguably, one which would not be lost on certain rock musicians from the 1960s onwards, a number of whom had started their careers at art college).
And can we blame Lucas and other YBAs for seeming to take advantage of a situation which had arisen due to a fear of appearing judgmental, whether in the arts or in any other sphere? When nobody is prepared to stick their neck out and say whether a work of art is good or bad on any aesthetic or moral grounds, then the volume of publicity and money it generates might be the only yardsticks by which its merits can now be judged. The ideas of art offering a form of aesthetic pleasure, spiritual solace or social commentary are altered, if not lost entirely. The YBAs, in their approach to artistic creation, thus have roles of dual significance, both as artists and gold-diggers, for they make us reconsider the possible purposes of art and the criteria for its assessment. They achieve, therefore, an importance for raising these issues, even though this may be far from the type of artistic status they originally sought. The work of Lucas is valuable here as it continues to pose these questions — even if they are ones which she many not have intended to bring before the public.
Sports, for thousands of years, have been a wonderful means for mankind to exercise one of our most basic instincts: competition with our fellow man. Surrounding all types of sports is the idea of sportsmanship, the respect and ethical behaviour shown to all participants of a contest. Sports fans around the world have all seen their share of sore losers, bad winners, and generally horrifying displays of poor sportsmanship. Yet, in all sports, there remain certain dogmas that only the most poorly behaved sportsman would dare to violate. The spirit of the game, in many cases, is far more important than the outcome of the match, and a true competitor understands this. This is why many of our most beloved athletes are not always the most talented or outstanding performers; it is those who play with the purest heart, for the sake of the team, and with respect for all opponents. Truly transcendent athletes are those that are able to combine this intangible trait with world class skill.
There are greater lessons to be learned from this besides being well-liked in the sporting community. Sports, and by extension, the athletes who play them, are able to go beyond cultural differences; surely there are stylistic differences between countries and regions, but in general, sports are played the same wherever you go. Similarly, all fans of a sport are able to appreciate incredible athletic feats or truly classy displays of sportsmanship. Simply put, sports have a way of bringing people together. In a day in age when settling cultural differences is of utmost importance, turning more towards sports is a reasonably viable way to bring the world closer together.
The best example of a sport bringing two societies together today is the case of cricket contests between India and Pakistan. Tension and hostility have marked the relationship between the two countries for much of the last century. What has become known as cricket diplomacy has been able to bring an air of friendliness to talks between leaders. In 2011, the former president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf was quoted on the benefits of cricket diplomacy. He said, ‘Firstly, I think it can be used as an ice-breaker in case the two opposing groups’ leadership is not in touch with each other. Secondly when they meet, it improves the environment of discussion because they have a better understanding of each other because I have personally believed that inter-state relations have much to do with inter-personal relations.’ Although he went on to say that he does not believe that cricket diplomacy will lead to resolution, it is clear that is eases the initial tension that can be a major detriment to diplomatic proceedings.
From my own personal experience as an American currently living in London, I have had the opportunity to speak to both Indian and Pakistani students studying here. The response I receive when I bring up cricket is remarkable. The passion and love they have for the game is unmistakeable, and, as is often the case when someone speaks passionately, I have been an eager listener. They want to share the game with me. Then comes the dreadful moment when I am asked ‘Why isn’t cricket played in the US?’ It is the world’s second most popular sport, yet it is virtually nonexistent in one of the world’s largest and most capable countries. Naturally, I don’t have a good answer; to me, it just isn’t popular. Further embracing and becoming familiar with sports that aren’t played at home can really help in overcoming a cultural divide, even if it’s just to get the conversation going.
There are countless other examples of the way sports can overcome cultural boundaries. Kobe Bryant, of the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers, is immensely popular in China – one city has built a statue of him. Ichiro Suzuki, a Japanese baseball player, has easily been one of the most popular player’s in the MLB during his time in the US, despite rarely giving an interview in English. It has been said that he ‘speaks baseball’ - that is, he plays the game the right way, one which any true fan will appreciate.
Similarly, a recent trend of European footballers, such as David Beckham and Thierry Henry, coming to the US has helped quell the notion that Americans don’t play or watch football, although the country still has a long way to go. Lastly, international events such as the Olympic Games or World Cup are perfect opportunities to show the world that international cooperation and peace are possible, if only for a few short weeks every couple of years. Sports can and need to be used as instruments of change, proponents of peace, and in general, positive and unifying forces in an ever uncertain world.
The Olympic Creed says it best: ‘The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well’.
When we look at a product of physical design - a building, say - we don’t usually think about the influences which went into its production. Subconsciously we know that they’re there, of course, but we tend to concentrate on the finished product as if it’s something which has sprung, fully-formed, from the mind of its creator. This exhibition makes us think about the influences behind physical design — in this case fashion — and does so with material from what is still regarded in some quarters as a tricky decade.
Primarily under examination here are some of the fashions which emerged from the flamboyant New Romantic clubbing period which dominated the 1980s. This is a controversial era to cover for reasons we will examine later. There is also material from the Rave scene which followed it. But first, let’s look at some of the high points of what’s on offer here from a time when posing was top of the night-life agenda.
Vivienne Westwood’s designs take pride of place with the trousers, jacket and red-and-gold bicorn hat from her 1981-82 ‘Pirates’ collection, the hobble skirt and baggy top from her 1983-84 ‘Witches’ collection and the curvy shortness of her 1985 cotton mini-crini, an item at once conservative yet explicit, combining a traditional form of skirt designed to conceal the lower shape of the female body with a modern style which reveals it.
In the dark, club-like setting of the exhibition our attention is caught by a homburg-style hat with a turned-up brim by Stephen Jones from 1981. From 1983, Sarah Whitworth gives us a Goth ensemble of skirt, blouse, corset and jacket decorated with a spider’s-web-like pattern. By way of contrast, we get a taste of 1930s glamour with, from 1986, a long stretch frock by Georgina Godley. From 1989, Pam Hogg gives us a gold bondage-style outfit and, from the following year, a multi-coloured catsuit, reminding us of the period when her Newburgh Street shop offered an inspiring contrast to the then-prevailing tourist tat trap of nearby Carnaby Street. And, also from 1990, we have Rifat Ozbek’s sparkling silver jacket showing that the glitz of New Romantic clubbing was still able to keep its head above the energetic but mundane waters of Rave culture.
In order to enter the mood of the milieu from which these fashions emerged, there is a darkened room where video footage of nightclubs from the era, such as Taboo (so called because as its host, designer and performance artist Leigh Bowery, said, ‘there is nothing you can’t do there’,) and music from the time, are streamed by veteran New Romantic DJ Jeffrey Hinton. This will bring back happy memories for any (now middle-aged) New Romantic visitors, and it gives some idea of the self-generating energy of the club scene. Its showy self-confidence may come as a revelation to younger clubbers used to a more informal night-life ethos. When out clubbing in that era, the attitude was to demonstrate, and expect, the visually unexpected. Style magazines such as Blitz, i-D and The Face were constantly keeping their readers on tenterhooks for what might be the next style development to appear. But the exhibition could, arguably, do more to exemplify and expand upon the influences behind the styles and which went into the melting-pot of this scene.
Most New Romantics had been at the artier spectrum of Punk (which, it should be remembered, was about the standard youthful pastimes of baiting of authority figures and having sex-and-alcohol-fuelled fun, rather than a serious political statement or movement), itself formed by a magpie-like gathering from previous youth styles. There were other influences, too. In the early seventies there had been Glam Rock, with Bryan Ferry showing how a person could re-invent themselves through style, and David Bowie who showed that someone from a working-class background could become a star(man). (Any visitor to this exhibition should try, if possible, to catch the Bowie one at the V&A too,) Also, the film Cabaret, and the biographical television play The Naked Civil Servant about Quentin Crisp, had prepared the way for open avowals of homosexuality and bisexuality.
Further, in the previous two decades fashion and design had been influenced by practitioners who were fans of the glitzier end of American culture, more Confidential than The New Yorker in spirit - think skyscrapers, fin-tailed cars, horror films, Betty Page, Las Vegas (Hockney’s Los Angeles pool paintings were perfect examples of this sensibility). Simultaneously, high cultural references could be found among the more sophisticated art students on the New Romantic scene — a picture of Edith Sitwell featured on a wall of one of the squats occupied by its devotees (how many of their successors today have heard of her, one wonders).
And the scene celebrated by this exhibition needs all the cultural thrust that it can garner. New Romanticism was, simultaneously, metropolitan and parochial,a London tribe of fashion students, wannabe journalists, musicians and Soho chancers, along with a few similarly-minded provincial Glam/Punk veterans such as Marc Almond (Leeds), and Pete Burns (Liverpool), but its sensitivity would spread into the wider culture, leaving a lasting legacy. Designers such as Vivienne Westwood captured the fashion world’s interest — henceforth, fashionistas would continually keep an eye on what British designers were doing.
The ‘one-nighter’ theme club a product of the scene — gave a new lease of life to the nation’s night-clubbing habits. British New Romantic bands, with their visual style, helped kick-start the growth of the pop video when MTV was launched in the 1980s (Annie Lennox’s playful use of androgyny would disturb American audiences), whilst the electro synthesizer music they favoured would pave the way for house, dance and — eventually — technology-based ‘boffin’ music — outfits like Visage and Heaven 17 are owed a debt of gratitude from any bands which have created their sound, not from musical instruments in a garage but with gadgets in a bedroom.
Style magazines would help foster the money-spinning importance of design. Yet the scene’s people and works were considered beyond the pale of serious cultural consideration because they were somehow felt to be an extension of — or, at least, in sympathy with the socio-economic changes which were taking place under Mrs Thatcher’s leadership. Until recently, that cultural mud has stuck, and the V&A deserves a gold star for having the courage to do something in praise of the eighties.
The exhibition is valuable for other reasons. It reminds us that talent in fashion, as in all art, is not democratic. The line of beauty is vertical, not horizontal. Not everyone gets to the dance floor, let alone looks good on it or designs well enough for it. For eighties’ New Romantic clubbing was notoriously hierarchical: ‘would you let yourself in, dear?’ was the question every clubber feared as he or she awaited admittance — at the whim of a mirror-wielding club host — to their chosen place of pleasure.
Such an attitude would, by and large, disappear when Rave culture — which sparked a moral and legislative panic over its large, unlicensed and drug-fuelled parties took over after New Romanticism’s demise. In the former, although brands mattered, sartorial flamboyance took a back seat. Only the gay, transvestite and fetish scenes retained any sense of style, and few New Romantics wished to dance like epileptic chickens at impromptu gatherings in muddy fields or be pursued by party-busting police.
The Glam, Punk and early New Romantic scenes developed against and, arguably, as a reaction to — a backdrop of national decline: the industrial, social and economic traumas of the 1970s. Today, there seems to be little of musical or cultural significance happening which is making the same level of impact that the scenes celebrated in this exhibition achieved 30 years ago, despite not only the New Romantic legacy leaving its mark in fashion, music and night-clubbing but also a current wave of socio-economic turmoil which seems propitious for summoning a response from popular culture.
Why is this? Did New Romanticism take decadence as far as it could go, making shock a thing of the past? Have social media rendered the maintenance of the ‘in-group’ style tribe — kept select by a small but culturally dominant social elite — all but impossible? Has technology made advances in musical styles something routine? This exhibition makes us wonder if these things are the case. But it also recalls the fervour and creativity of that scene, so providing inspiration for anyone who wants to attempt pushing out the boundaries of creativity in music and fashion in a new direction. New Romanticism nourished some current cultural figures when they were in embryo. It would be good if this exhibition, and the thoughts it provokes, could be a catalyst for future legends as yet hidden in our midst.
What do faith and fashion have in common? At first glance, nothing. One is concerned with unchanging verities, the other with the surface, the passing, the ephemeral. But they share one thing. Both have beliefs and rituals which can be the subject of endless exegesis. Parables and peplums alike can be elucidated for their supposed symbolism. Religious commentators and controversialists mine sacred texts and practices for meaning or to score doctrinal points. Fashion styles can be used as imagined indicators of a public mood, or as clothes-horses upon which to hang, with varying degrees of accuracy, social or political observations. What enlightenment does this book provide for us about the attitudes of the eighties, a decade which, until recently, commentators have studiously ignored?
Iain R Webb, an award-winning writer, and professor of fashion at the Royal College of Art and Central St. Martin’s, is a former fashion editor of Blitz magazine, which was founded in 1980 and shared its name with a club which came to symbolise the then-current New Romantic movement (more of that later). It was one of a triumvirate of what was considered to be a unique invention of the period: the style magazine (the other two were i-D and The Face). This genre was not entirely new - women’s magazines ranging from Tatler to Photoplay had, for decades, provided style examples (based on the fashions favoured by aristocratic women and, later, film stars) for their readers to follow. But in the wake of the Punk Rock and New Romantic movements there had emerged the concept of ‘street style’.
Again, there was nothing essentially new here — teenage styles, based on the various genres of popular music and the clothes adopted by their young followers, had been a source of commercial interest and social/sartorial comment since the emergence of teenagers as a specific socio-economic group in the 1950s. Teddy Boy, Mod, Skinhead, whatever, the teen mags told their readers where to get the clothes, haircuts, make-up, and records of their chosen style tribe (pop music was important here: from the fifties to the eighties, it was taken as a serious form of youth bonding: generations of schoolchildren would write the names of their favourite bands onto schoolbags and exercise-book covers, although it must also be remembered that a number of their confreres had only a passing interest in pop and, if middle-class, were often dissuaded by parental disapproval from adopting what were seen as down-market tastes and dress-codes).
What made Blitz and its coeval publications catch media-watchers’ imaginations was the combination of flamboyance and hard work manifested by their New Romantic go-getting workforces, plus the feeling that the fashions they championed were harbingers of something new. This book contains an interview with Blitz’s founders along with a collection of its fashion shoots, each one being accompanied by recollections of its production background by those involved. There is also a selection of interviews with leading fashion figures of the period, along with a useful career update of the magazine’s contributors.
The founders’ interview shows the usual mixture of vision and bravura which accompanies any new media undertaking, whilst the fashion shoots feature clothes designed by and for people the cultural commentator Peter York has described as ‘Thems’. Products of the post war expansion of art colleges and the rise in status of interior designers —who considered that they could revolutionize a Britain still clouded by post-war austerity —Thems were people who ’...wear their rooms, eat their art.’ Think Andrew Logan (of Alternative Miss World fame), and Gilbert and George, as examples of Themness. So the clothes we see here are not what you would wear for, say, doing the weekly shop or going to work (unless you were a Them, of course).
And what we see is very much a mixed bag. From Blitz of November 1984 we see a model swathed majestically in a crown of fabric by designer Judy Blame, exemplifying the make-do-and-mend ethos of some designers at that time. April 1986 shows a pseudo-Hermes colourful smart tailored women’s jacket made by Darryl Black from scarves by high street brand Pink Soda, whilst October 1986 gives us improvised ball gowns by Black, and August 1987 shows a hybrid combination of clothes styles by Michael Costiff and his late wife Gerlinde featuring a model wearing lycra shorts, and a lace skirt stomping on cans of Red Stripe beer (the clothes were from different parts of the world and their use can be seen as a harbinger of global branding). However, some of the material designed to catch our attention does so, but in the wrong way. One thing, probably not intended by Webb, stands out from examining what’s on offer: the way in which fashion had, by the eighties, succumbed to what some might see as Modernism’s two defining principles; ‘sod the public’, and ‘will this go down well with my peers?’.
If we want proof that the cutting edge is often too blunt to do the cultural job, some of the fashions here give abundant proof. From February 1985 we have pseudo-bloodstained bandaged bodies — which look bored rather than suffering — to illustrate a feature about the rise of plastic surgery, whilst from September 1986 we have an exercise in tired camp — a Spanish-themed feature including a corseted male with a rose between his teeth. Some of this work gives a sense of desperation — or the sound of the bottom of a barrel being scraped furiously — in an attempt to escape the hard truth that there is only so much that can be done with clothing to make it seem new, that fashion is, at base, an exercise in inventive visual recycling. Nevertheless, these shoots are valuable for the sense of pioneering enthusiasm, recollected by their participants, which helped to get not only the designers but also the whole style magazine genre off the ground.
Webb’s selection of interviews with various designers, offering insights into what makes them tick, and their views about the machinations of fashion and related topics, is more interesting. We encounter the pretentiousness which one might expect from fashion’s practitioners. Donna Karan, asked in Blitz’s May 1986 issue whether she had a favourite designer, stated that ‘I admire everyone’s achievements in this business ... I appreciate the difficulties and I admire individual statements.’ This diplomatic reply hovers perilously near the bathetic world-improving aspirations of a beauty-pageant contestant. But from others there are some unexpectedly blunt and perceptive views of not only their personal approaches to fashion, but also what the rag trade shows about national attitudes to art and achievement. From January 1987 we learn that distinguished fashion writer the late Anna Piaggi had, at base, a simple love of dressing-up and, visually, doing her own thing, showing a great sense of liberation from the dictates of fashion. Asked about the importance of the way she mixed clothes, she replied ‘I have respect but at the same time there has to be a good mixture. There has to be a touch of humour, to send up what one is wearing.’
In April 1987, Designer Antony Price berated the ‘English idea that design is something to laugh at — design is poofs with pencils and bits of fabric and you laugh. In England you either get people who understand absolutely everything about design, and are the best on the face of the earth, or you get the most ignorant people. If you get ignorant British you get really ignorant. The equivalent of ignorant English in Europe can at least speak four other languages.’ Price could almost be that perceptive critic of British industrial decline, CoreIli Barnett, delivering one of his scattergun-like critiques of its organizational failures. So could Price’s fellow-designer Jasper Conran.
Asked in April 1987 what he thinks of the British fashion industry, he replied that ‘I wish it would regard itself as a real fucking industry…. anyone can go out there and say “I’m a fashion designer”, and it’s not good for how we are perceived in general as a country, which is still as a nice little cottage knitwear industry because there is no base of manufacture.’ One suspects that little has changed here and politicians, rather than hanging around fashion events in the forlorn hope of garnering some ‘street-cred’, could instead learn some hard lessons from designers about improving British attitudes to efficient production.
With this book, Webb joins other recent re-evaluators of the eighties’ fashion, music and clubbing scenes, and we might wonder why this reassessment has taken so long to start. The clue is in the magazine’s title. In the late 1970s, London’s Blitz club was the epicentre of the New Romantic scene, a place where future leading figures in the arts and fashion worlds partied, posed and networked (it closed a month after Blitz magazine was launched). Despite the club attracting people who would, for the next twenty years, be cultural achievers and trend-setters — such as film-makers John Maybury and Derek Jarman, fashion designers John Galan° and Jasper Conran, writer Robert Elms, milliner Stephen Jones, Daniel James (future founder of influential Mute Records), and musicians such as Midge Ure (of synthesizer band Ultravox) — New Romanticism (which would eventually go mainstream) was viewed by contemporary commentators as superficial, apolitical and out to make money: all bad things in the eyes of left-leaning journalists — especially those in the music press — who, forgetting that they were part of the capitalist press themselves, took a less than enthusiastic view of anything which appeared to chime with recently-elected Mrs Thatcher’s socio-economic policies.
A fear of the fey could have been at work here, too: seventies’ glam rockers may have toyed with gay mannerisms, but with New Romantics the camping around was the real deal. Laddishness and Right-On puritanism concocted a heady brew of long-lasting disdain which was why, until recently, very little reconsideration of the New Romantic achievement had emerged. Now, some of its devotees are daring to put their heads above the cultural parapet and throw fresh light onto the achievements of the eighties — as well as offering a reproof to those who have unthinkingly dismissed the period. Webb’s book is not only a fairly comprehensive fashion resource but also a welcome addition to the reappraisal of a seminal period in British popular culture.
A perfect engine, a human soldier, a ‘kind of nothing’. Coriolanus is a steaming cauldron of a role, a man as hot in war as he is cold in heart. When Olivier played this Roman general, he was described as ‘a pillar of fire on a plinth of marble.’ Now it is Tom Hiddleston’s turn and, whilst this is a magnetic and supremely considered performance, it isn’t the red raw guts of a role I was hoping for.
Josie Rourke has stripped the show right down and transformed an exceptionally epic Shakespeare play (battles bleed into battles that haemorrhage into wars) into a chamber piece. The cast has been cut down to only thirteen actors and a little boy. Lucy Osbourne’s set is spare and thickened up by of a series of projections on the back wall, which is alternately filled with graffiti, scrawled battle cries, warriors’ names and the looming gates of an enemy city.
The battles, too, are notably restrained. Most of the fighting is depicted with the help of just a few chairs, which are used as shields and to shift the terrain. It is a clever idea but it doesn’t make the blood boil. They are thoughtful battles rather than painful ones. Even the great ‘shower’ scene that all the critics have pounced upon – in which Hiddleston’s Coriolanus gasps in pain as he washes his blood-soaked body – feels too soft. Coriolanus has just one, beautiful ugly scar that crawls over his shoulder. Otherwise, he looks in perfectly good nick. At one point, Hiddleston shakes his hair and great pellets of red water scatter around him and the ghost of a L’Oreal advert rises up.
Scenes that should feel dangerous come across as funny or even harmless. This isn’t to take away from Hiddleston. He is a hugely talented actor, who can imprison the audience with just one confessional glace. But I never felt him roar. This is largely down to the still atmosphere that ‘engulfs’ Coriolanus. Rourke blasts loud music and spiralling projections into the scene changes but, for the most part, the scenes proper are quiet and still. When Coriolanus speaks with the plebeians in the Market Place, he stands at a lectern and addresses a nearly-mute audience. When Brutus (Eliot Levey on strong snaky form) chucks the plebeian’s ‘voices’ or voting forms over Coriolanus’ head, Hiddleston merely pats him. No one seems particularly afraid of Coriolanus. Where is the man who makes his ‘enemies shake, as if the world were feverous and did tremble’?
In fact, Coriolanus projects such a questionable energy that his enemy – the Volscian General Aufidius (Hadley Fraser) – really just wants to rough and tumble with him. Having been banished by his own people, Coriolanus seeks out his long-term foe, Aufidius. Their strange union is one of the most unsettling Shakespearean scenes I’ve ever read. Of course it tingles with sexual tension (‘Let me twine/Mine arms about that body, where against/My grained ash an hundred times hath broke’) but it is also edgy and frightening. This is two great warriors meeting and ‘feeling’ each other out! But Fraser plays Aufidius as a plain-speaking North country chap; a simple lad who has nursed a huge crush on Coriolanus for a very long time. This ‘union’ between Aufidius and Coriolanus makes the audience giggle when we should have our breath held, waiting for the first dagger to be drawn.
The only time this production really bleeds is in the final act, when Coriolanus’ mother – Volumnia (Deborah Findlay) – begs Coriolanus to return to Rome, to save his country, his reputation and his soul. When Findlay, so fierce and resolved, drops down on her knees to implore her son, it as if the world has flipped on its head. Findlay turns in the type of performance that makes you long for her to catch your eye, just so you can shudder. This is her tragedy. When she falls down on her knees it is this fall from grace that is the impossible reversal – the tragic flaw – that sets the final act scrambling to its bloody conclusion.
An acid attack as a symbol of love. A girl whose skull cracks and bleeds, if she is not invited in. Countless victims hung up like pigs, their throats slit and their blood collected. This vampiric love story is a brutal piece of theatre; sharp, exhilaratingly physical, shocking and viciously romantic.
Let the right one in is already a cult phenomenon, thanks to John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2004 novel and subsequent chilling movie. The movie was a cold, razor-edge experience that sliced right through one. The play was never going to be able to possess those same qualities. Theatre is just too physical and too immediate to be able to hold the audience at such an eerie distance. Instead, this is a deeply involving and visceral adaptation from writer Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany. The production is cruel and romantic, slicing and soaring; thick, muscular and overwhelming.
Christine Jones’ set has a nightmarish and hypnotic quality. We are deep in a Swedish forest, where regimented spindly trees climb up to impossible heights. A metal climbing frame stands in the woods, half fun and half torturous. Everything is blanketed in soft white snow, begging to be stained red.
Eli (Rebecca Benson, in a mature and beautifully balanced performance), the vampire girl who is central to our blood-red romance, hovers between reality and fantasy. She looks fairly normal but sounds weirdly airy. It is as if her voice has no heat in it. She has an elastic way of moving – shimmering up and scaling climbing frames and trees - that gives her a feral and magical quality. The shadow of horror dances about her but she is not horrific.
That same shadowy fear runs throughout John Tiffany’s expertly judged production. Full horror is rarely unleashed. Instead, the show is situated, painfully and thrillingly, in that clawing space between fear and terror. The scene changes are exceptionally fluid, with barely a breath, turn or exit between one scene and the next. Everything unfolds in the forest: beds, lockers, hospitals and swimming pools slide in and out of the trees. There is no space for us to relax, think or question.
Many of the scenes are soft, gentle, silly. Eli and her new pal Oskar (Martin Quinn) swipe sweets, play games and scamper through the forest. Some scenes even poke fun at the show. After Oskar and Eli have declared they are ‘going out’, Oskar spoons the chest inside which Eli sleeps. What confidence, to be able to play with the absurdity of this dark fantastical romance.
The surreal glaze to this show allows Tiffany to accent certain scenes with such invention. When Oskar tries to steer himself against the bullies (who, again, are all the more frightening for the mere promise of violence they hold in their clenched fists) he goes into the forest and practices his punching and bitching. A crowd of actors mimic Oskar’s movements. They are his growing strength and hidden demons. We watch Oskar find himself in that lonely forest that is the splendid and fearful isolation of youth.
There are some grand-standing horror moments but it is the indirect shocks that really got to me. Sure, Eli’s skull cracks and bleeds and Oskar’s bullies are killed in a spectacular swimming pool massacre. But it is the little moments (those moments that are your world when you are young) that convert the horror in this story into something meaningful. As Eli and Oskar grow close, Oskar urges Eli to eat a sweet, something she has never done before. Against her impulses, Eli eats the sweet. Later, Eli wretches violently, alone in the forest. It is such a simple scene – but it howls with the pain we all experience on the cusp of adulthood, as we try to deny and grow into ourselves in one horribly lonely wrench.
Richard II was only 10 years old when he ascended the throne and this early rise to power is stamped all over David Tennant’s brave, unlikeable and unforgettable, performance. This is a man who froze at the very moment he should have grown into something bigger and better than himself; a king who holds his sceptre like a doll, who is surrounded by old men much wiser than himself and who, in his darkest hour, calls out for bed-time stories.
Tennant’s Richard is also a man who, in his naiveté, trusts completely in the divine right of kings. It is this faith in his divine power that first elevates and later destroys King Richard II. Gregory Doran’s enlightening production is framed with a glistening air of reverent divinity. Paul Englishby’s haunting choral music, performed by three crystalline sopranos (Charlotte Ashley, Helena Raeburn, Alex Saunders), practically knocks on heaven’s door. There is a distilled beauty to this music, which frames many of Richard’s more ridiculous outbursts, that stops the audience from laughing at him and whispers of that sanctity that Richard might not have earned but certainly owns.
That sparkling divinity also flickers in Stephen Brimson’s elegant set, which is as understated as Richard is showy. Sweeping bronze beaded curtains enshroud the set in a shimmering ephemeral grace. Tim Mitchell’s lighting sequences throb with a similarly impressive yet unassuming beauty. Great sweeps of orange invoke the swell of a night moon and further subtle but gorgeous shifts in colour – from muted yellows, to glassy blues and smokey greys – gently reflect the great majesty that is contained in the shifting skies of Richard’s England.
There is a modest beauty to this classy production that forces us to take Richard seriously. This allows Tennant to push his interpretation as far as it will go and make his Richard as silly and petty and small as he dares. This is a Richard who cares more about his flowing locks than his followers; a Richard who wears glossy gowns that encase him in a protective sphere and keep him safely removed from human touch. This is a Richard who surrounds himself with followers only so they might applaud his pretty speeches. He is a king who is switched on when he is centre stage but whose eyes turn glassy whenever anyone else has the temerity to speak in his presence.
Tennant’s Richard isn’t as cruel as other interpretations, such as Kevin Spacey’s recently acidic take. It isn’t that this Richard doesn’t care – only that he cannot feel. With Gaunt on the verge of death, Richard gulps down his wine and urges his followers to join him in paying their last respects. He is astoundingly indifferent but not malicious. It is as if Richard’s emotional growth has been stunted and he reacts to everything as a ten year old boy might, interested and excited but never deeply moved.
Doran has cleverly accented the elder statesmen in this play, in order to highlight the difference between their hard-earned emotional intelligence and Richard’s airy placidity. When Michael Pennington delivers Gaunt’s mighty ‘This England’ speech, it is thick with a lifetime’s understanding and feeling. Pennington summons up the dream of what England once was and the fiery nightmare of what he fears it will become. This is the kind of gritty, heart-pricking speech that can only come from one who has lived close to the ground and not above it; who has picked up and smelt England’s rich earth and fallen deeply in love with all it stands for.
The elder statesmen are connected to England and its people in a way that Tennant’s Richard cannot hope to be. Familial relationships, so formal and compromised in the royal family, play a strong role in this production. There is a fierce connection between Gaunt and his bullish son Bolingbroke (Nigel Lindsay). It is this unbreakable tie –so much more tangible than that between Richard and his god – that provokes Bolingbroke’s return to England and succession to the throne. All around Richard, connections are being forged that he cannot replicate, rendering him increasingly isolated from his country and his people.
This isolation is brilliantly enhanced by Doran’s thoughtful aesthetics and Tennant’s stunningly complex performance. Richard’s throne is almost always elevated above the stage, emphasising how much Richard’s role removes him from his subjects. As Richard’s Kingdom comes under greater threat, the throne struggles for dominance. In a final act of defiance, Richard’s throne descends from above, a golden glow pulsing around it. Richard and his throne climb up higher and higher, desperately clawing for the God that sets them above but apart from country and subjects.
That elevated removal is even there in the tone of Tennant’s voice, which is a good few pitches higher than normal. His speeches float above the rabble and his voice deepens only on a few exquisitely pointed occasions. It drops when Richard finally falls below his subjects, incarcerated in a prison that lies beneath the level of the stage. Richard’s voice also deepens in those rare moments of fear or betrayal which – in their human urgency – finally render Richard more man than majesty.
There are pockets of magic in this Christmas promenade show, which will make you feel young, naive and hopeful; beautifully crafted scenes that encourage you to look deep inside yourself and find something kind and pure. But there are also moments when it feels like the adverts have come on, the remote control is bust – and there is nothing you can do but sit and suffer in silence.
The last two shows by Look Left Look Right (both directed by Mimi Poskitt and written by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and Katie Lyons) have left me feeling a little uncomfortable. ‘Above and Beyond’ took place in the 5 star Corinthia Hotel and was the end-product of an artist-in-residence competition. The show was clever and occasionally enchanting but it also felt artistically compromised. We were shown some lovely snippets of theatre but, above all, we received a stellar tour of a 5 star venue.
This latest show, as sparky and imaginative as it is in places, feels similarly compromised. The programme reads: ‘Look Left Look Right and Covent Garden present Once Upon a Christmas’ and it’s hard to say where the advert ends and the artistic endeavor begins. Some of the advertising is understandable and well integrated, but other moments feel shoe-horned in and seriously threaten the integrity and power of this production.
The self-contained opening is cheeky and fairly convincing. A seriously narked Head Elf informs us that Cinderella and Prince Charming are on the verge of breaking up and it’s up to us to reunite them and save Christmas! I’m not sure what cynics would make of this piece – the show depends on romantic and optimistic audience members – but my companion and I are Disney-loving saps, so jumped into gear easily and happily.
The audience of two is split up and sent on a Disney-flecked tour of Covent Garden, lit up by Joanna Scother’s witty and romantic costumes. We meet Snow White, the Ugly Sisters and animals stuck half way between man and creature, whiskers twitching on their faces or tails swishing from beneath their coats. We gossip with princes, take part in magic spells and prepare lonely sisters for their big dates.
We’re led through suit stores, chocolate shops and various other retailers throughout Covent Garden. If I’m being generous, I could say it’s charming that these shops agreed to take part. But it is also rather odd to be paraded around shops throughout the production, just at the height of the Christmas shopping season. Commercialism and theatricality nestle side by side in an uncomfortable fashion.
Some of the encounters are whacky and engaging enough to quell such misgivings – but there was one particularly grating scene which threatened to break the spell completely. Deep into my adventure, following a moving encounter with a heart-broken Buttons, I am led to a pumpkin seller who delivers a potted summary of the history of Covent Garden. I could practically see the show’s proposal being written in front of my eyes. It made me feel silly for ‘falling for’ the rest of the show.
Just as I’m starting to harden against the piece, I’m whisked off in a carriage and cheerfully heckled by members of the public. In fact, it’s the Covent Garden crowd that lights up this show and softens it around the edges. As I wandered about the street with a beautifully-dressed Snow White, little girls hovered excitedly in the distance – and as I took my carriage ride, a number of people wished me happiness and earnestly implored me to get married. There’s magic to be found out there; maybe we’d have felt it more strongly if we’d spent a little less time touring the shops of Covent Garden.
Henry V, Noel Coward Theatre, London
Well, that’s Michael Grandage’s first West End season done and dusted and let me tell you this: it was absolutely fine. There were plenty of celebrities, lots of lucid performances, some pretty sets and no surprises. The whole season has had a whiff of the head boy showcase about it. It’s all perfectly admirable and impressive – but it isn’t half galling too.
There’s even an air of head boy about Jude Law’s Henry V. Dressed in streamlined period costume, Law looks like he’s had a particularly adventurous rummage around Top Man. Law’s Henry V is the type of solid and confident chap you’d want to lead your football team. He is loyal and forthright and not afraid to get physical. This is a King who relishes confrontation but does not lose himself in it. That’s a fairly decent attribute for a King to have, with his England on the cusp of war with France.
Law’s Henry isn’t just strong; there are moments of great shade and colour to his performance. Law looks like he is really relishing the lushness and complexity of Shakespeare’s script, marvelling at Shakespeare’s tripping, swooping, teasing use of language. Law caresses the expansive vowels and triumphantly cuts down on the sharp consonants. He does a very decent job of carving out the script and all credit to Grandage for coaxing out such confident elocution.
But it does feel like it is the rich script and delivery that elevates Law’s performance rather than something that runs a little deeper. I’m not convinced Law’s characterisation is as sophisticated as his delivery – but it is still a skilful and convincing performance. The same can be said of Grandage’s production, which is solid indeed and just a little proud of itself.
There’s a vague weariness that clings to this show. It feels like Grandage is falling back on his greatest tricks so as to avoid offending this new, larger and richer, audience. Christopher Oram’s set encapsulates this elegant poise, which is just a whisker away from stagnancy. The stage is enclosed by huge planks of exquisitely aged wood. It looks like a giant shed; very pretty, vaguely ominous but ultimately a little bland.
Lots of the images - those big reveals in which the director and designer are meant to flex their muscles – are underwhelming. The same applies to Adam Cork (this is the man behind the inimitable London Road) and his sound design. It all feels a bit paint by numbers. On the eve before battle, the giant shed opens to reveal a sparkling night sky. Cork’s ‘wonder’ music, which is used at suitably reverential moments throughout the show, tinkles in the background. The soldier’s shiver around little camp fires, which glow from beneath the stage. Each piece of the puzzle feels worn out.
The battle scenes, which is where the fire of this play burns, are flat. Propeller recently staged Henry V and their battles felt like one long extended chest-rattling war cry. These clashes were pumped full of so much testosterone, it was all I could do not to bash the person next to me. But Grandage’s battles are so tidy; so safe and so pretty! When Henry’s army prepare for battle, they stand in neatly arranged lines. And when the guns finally start firing, the battle unfolds with perfect symmetry. A gun goes off with each solider’s entrance onto stage. This is battle as background support rather than foreground chaos.
There are little sparks and exceptions, which suggest how much more exciting this production might have been. Ashley Zhangazha is brilliant as the chorus boy, whose job it is to flit in and out of the show, pointing out its fictional qualities and losing himself inside the fantasy. Zhangazha, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, makes light work of his performance. He plays around with his speeches, injecting them with fresh and immediate energy. He makes the play feel volatile and new.
The one time the show proper breaks free from its handsome restraints is in the final scene, when Law’s Henry attempts to woo Princess Katherine. Suddenly there is sparkle and spontaneity to Law’s performance. A little of the man, fallible and unpredictable, is finally allowed to wriggle into the show. The head boy is vanquished, the school rebel takes over and the show is transformed from a fine monument into a vulnerable but lively production.
Till 12 February 2014